THE BODY SNATCHER
The Body Snatcher is also notable as being the first solo directorial effort of Robert Wise who would go onto such celebrated successes as West Wide Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965) and noted genre efforts such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The Haunting (1963), The Andromeda Strain (1971), Audrey Rose (1977) and Star Trek The Motion Picture (1979). Robert Wise had previously worked as editor for Orson Welles on Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), before debuting for Val Lewton as co-director of The Curse of the Cat People.
With his last two films The Body Snatcher and Bedlam Val Lewton began to turn away from the ambiguously supernatural to dark, ghoulish period pieces. The Body Snatcher was the first of several films based on the Burke and Hare story others include The Greed of William Hart (1948), The Flesh and the Fiends/Mania (1960), The Anatomist (1961), Burke & Hare (1972), The Doctor and the Devils (1985) and John Landiss comedy remake Burke & Hare (2010). The Body Snatcher is based on an 1884 short story by Robert Louis Stevenson, the author also of Treasure Island (1883) and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886).
Robert Wise demonstrates a considerable mastery of the trademark Lewtonian effect of suggested horror. One scene that stands out in the memory is the one where the camera sits watching an old woman singer as she disappears down a gloomy alley followed by Boris Karloffs cab she vanishes off into the darkness singing and the cab follows after, there is a long moment and then the singing stops with a quiet yelp. The scene where Boris Karloff steals the first body is conducted with a nicely shocking economy we seeing an exaggerated shadow creeping along the graveyard wall as we hear the dog waiting beside its dead masters grave whining, the shadow swings the spade with a clang and the dogs howl suddenly dies. The only lapse is the climax and the scene with the body under the sack returning to life, which, while shocking, adds a quasi-supernatural element that jars with the rest of the films carefully established mood.
The Body Snatcher contains one of Boris Karloffs finest performances. The character is one of sharp ambiguity on one hand kind to children and full of overly exaggerated genteel but capable of turning cold at a moments notice and delivering wonderfully implied threats. Even Bela Lugosi manages to give a good performance, disguising his hammy propensities in a brief role as a genuinely thick character. Not too much attention is paid to obtaining authentic Scottish accents, but this does not matter too much in this otherwise fine film.